Have you ever taken an IQ test? My Dad loves to complain that IQ tests only measure how good you are at taking IQ tests, (albeit while noting he was once a member of Mensa), and the more I’ve been reading about learning, psychology and neuroscience the more I find I absolutely have to agree with him.
It’s always been fairly nonsensical when you consider how this fabled human quality of ‘natural ability’ was so inextricably and inversely linked to poverty, parenting and early childhood experience. I wonder how many of the people who graduated from the ever-expanding Open University last year were written off as ‘not very bright’ at school? My own mother left school at 15 without a maths qualification and with an enormous chip on her shoulder. By the time she was 55 she had a masters degree in literature and a great deal more pride. She not only had to study, she had to build her own confidence and teach herself study skills, and I have to say I admire her greatly for it.
Perhaps, in her school days, she failed her 11+. Perhaps she was put in low ability sets. Perhaps she was given cloze-exercises and wordsearches when her peers in other sets and schools were getting challenged by extended problems. Maybe nobody ever took the time to go back and shore up a few shaky foundations of her understanding, nobody took the time to give her the will, the confidence, and the discipline to learn nor the tools with which to improve. I suspect instead they simply said ‘she’s not very able’ and were happy for her to not understand much of what was being taught, gain Ds and Es and then shunt her off to some low-expectation low-demand qualifications to suit her ‘talent’ level.
Of course there has been a change in focus in these days. Now having failed her 11+ she would have been allocated a target grade that is appropriate for her ability while showing a suitable level of progress. Teachers may even tell her they have set an aspirational target of a C. High aspirations indeed(!), and then of course she would be advised to take some of her favourite subjects, possibly less academically demanding ones, so that she won’t lose her self-confidence.
Oh dear. Can 2012 be the year we stop this nonsense? Time to go back to first principles.
Every student has some history of attainment and some holes in understanding. However, just as importantly, each of them bring with them varying levels of motivation across subjects. The process of learning itself requires a number of skills, and different students will be strong in some and less-so in others.
Attainment, and capacity to learn. The two planks of student education and development. And yet for some reason lots of teachers pay far too much attention to the former, and concentrate overly much on the narrow ‘confidence’ element in the latter.
It is our role as teachers to develop a student’s capacity to learn as much as it is to present the subject material. If a student finds something hard and unappealing it is our job to develop their mental capacity to learn it effectively and find some hook of interest and experience on which to hang it – not to find them easier work or funnel them in to ‘alternative provision’.
If a student doesn’t initially warm to a subject, or has trouble accessing it, then they are not ‘less able’, they have simply not yet developed the capacity to learn it so effectively, nor have they yet attained the relevant previous skills and knowledge. Children develop at different rates, but that does not imply ‘ability’. If a student isn’t accessing material in a lesson then perhaps the assessment of their understanding has failed – there may be earlier concepts that they haven’t grasped that are blocking their progress.
That said, if we give students the impression that it is their job to sit there passively and be ‘taught’ by teachers then we are doing both the students and the teachers a disservice. In developing their capacity to learn we must not only instil motivation but also the discipline and rigour of study. Some of the best things that we learn in life are the ones that are hard, verging on unpleasant at first, and only blossom into fascination at a later stage. If we trust both that the outcome of our efforts will be worthwhile, and that we have the ability to overcome the obstacles, then we can learn.
Poverty of aspiration is a terrible thing. Is is easy, as @oldandrewuk always says, to write off “other people’s children” as simply less able, while staying up late with your own helping them with homework and buying in expensive private tutors so that they can fulfil their true potential.
I very much hope that any student who, in my career so far, has felt that I have written them off or ‘dumbed them down’ will, in 20 years time, track me down with their own Open University degree in hand and shove it in my face. I am sure I would deserve it, just as much as my own mum’s maths teachers most certainly did.
Agree/disagree? I’d love to hear your comments.